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Film Review: Chicago Joe and The Showgirl (1990)

A crime spree which took place in 1940s London is the topic for the little-known Chicago Joe and the Showgirl. The film is based on events which occurred over just seven days in 1944 when an American GI met a good-time girl in a coffee house – a chance meeting which sparked a wave of crime a la Bonnie and Clyde and which shocked wartime Londoners bonded together by necessity. If you haven’t heard about this affair or the 1990 film, you’re probably not the only one.

Some though will have heard about a crime which became known as the cleft chin murder. For those of us familiar with the case, this big screen adaptation promises much: a script by investigative journalist David Yallop, (In God’s Name) directed by Bernard Rose (Cult TV drama Prospects, Candyman as well as Frankie Goes to Hollywood videos) and boasting a stellar cast: Kiefer Sutherland, Emily Watson, Patsy Kensit, Keith Allen and a rare sighting of the enigmatic Alexandra Pigg.

As ever with true stories, liberties can be taken in the interests of drama. That Yallop’s script remains faithful to actual events is much to his and the film’s credit. Yes, the film’s opening and closing do benefit from artistic licence, but these fantasy sequences work thematically and serve to bookend the nitty gritty main course rather well.

The film opens with Betty (Emily Watson) aka the showgirl basking in adulation upon arrival at the Oscars, flashbulbs popping etc. In real life, Betty was somewhat of a fantasist. While living in a drab bedsit and working as a stripper she dreamed of glamour. Influenced by the James Cagney gangster genre popular at the time, the pretty 18-year-old aspired, in her own words, to be a ‘gangster’s moll’.

And then she meets American GI Karl Hulten (Sutherland). Hulten is an army deserter and had turned to eking out a living selling contraband in the London underworld. Styling himself ‘Lieutenant Ricky’ and already heavily involved with a British girl played with cherubic innocence by Kensit, the meeting with Jones – also using an alias – would prove fatal for Private Hulten, literally so.

A meeting of minds, Betty and Karl are soon swooning around town in a stolen US Army truck. Watson plays the role of the showgirl with a mix of innocence and experience; while she knows how to manipulate her GI with her sexuality, she herself is deluded by thoughts of playing out a film with her ‘Lieutenant’ who boasts of his (false) connections to the Chicago mob. Who’s manipulating who? Good question.

Scenes where the couple pick up a lone woman (Pigg) and where Hulten, egged on by his surprisingly cold-hearted moll, proceeds to beat and then discard of her body in a river, are as tense as they are graphic. Certainly, as the film progresses Betty’s character becomes ever more amoral – caught up in her own lurid fantasy. With her blend of naivety and wickedness, it’s a tough role for any actress and Watson with her estuary-cockney accent just about manages to pull it off.

But it’s the cold-blooded murder of a taxi driver that finally brought this week-long spree to an end. Once again, it’s Betty who is portrayed as the instigator, Hulten much more reluctant, but seemingly trapped by his own web of lies (in real life Hulten not only had a British fiancé, but a wife and child back in America) had little choice but to live up to his macho gangster image.

Although the film skirts over how police finally caught up with the fugitive, once in custody Betty has no qualms in laying the blame squarely at Hulten’s door. One of the film’s most intriguing aspects is the character of Betty. Was she just purely evil? Or did the lack of conscience displayed in this film have another explanation?

While Hulten was hung in July 1944 for what became known as the cleft chin murder, Jones was reprieved 48 hours before her own execution was scheduled. She was released from prison in 1954 and thereafter faded away into obscurity.

Although Chicago Joe and the Showgirl is not rated by users of imdb that's not necessarily a bad thing. This is an atmospheric little gem of a thriller, well worth 100 minutes of anybody’s time.